Above The Neck Play Could Keep Vince Williams Above The Line

By Matthew Marczi

Prior to the first preseason game for the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was my intention to write about Vince Williams as potentially the ninth linebacker on the team’s 53-man roster, which would fly in the face of convention, given their history of keeping a fifth outside linebacker, rather than an inside linebacker.

Part of the argument rested on the versatility of fourth-year inside linebacker Stevenson Sylvester, who had already gotten a lot of work on the outside during the preseason from a year ago and continued to receive practice reps there this year.

Of course, Sylvester was unable to display his versatility in-game on Saturday due to the friendly fire ankle injury that he suffered on special teams. It is also worth noting that the Steelers kept outside linebacker Adrian Robinson as the ninth linebacker a season ago despite the fact that Sylvester and Brandon Johnson—both primarily inside linebackers who have the ability to go outside—were the backup inside linebackers.

However, after the showcase that the eight-deep inside linebacker unit delivered on Saturday night, the case for a fifth inside linebacker for 2013 seems stronger than ever. With a mixture of hungry veterans like Brian Rolle and Kion Wilson sprinkled in with young upside rookies like Williams and Terence Garvin, the cuts at the inside linebacker position may be the most difficult to make after the conclusion of the preseason.

A telling feature speaking directly to the potential for Williams—the second of the team’s two sixth-round draft picks in 2013—however, is the fact that he was called upon to replace Sylvester when the latter was injured. And it is not simply the fact of his replacement, but the reason that he was the replacement.

After all, the fact of the matter is that rookie tryout success story Terence Garvin actually stepped in alongside Marshall McFadden to patrol the middle of the second-team defense first. In fact, outside of one snap—in which Sylvester tried to give his ankle a go—Garvin played the first two possessions with the second-team defense.

One would have to think that linebackers coach Keith Butler called upon the rookies to run with McFadden because veterans Wilson and Rolle had been working as a tandem in camp, otherwise one of those two would have likely jumped ahead in the pecking order for the game.

But why did Butler pull Garvin and insert Williams after two series? According to him, it was because Williams plays “from the neck up”, and with a young backer trying to master the signal-calling responsibilities of the Buck, Butler likes to have a Mack that can help out, as Lawrence Timmons does for Larry Foote.

Williams, of course, has also been learning the Buck, and reports early on from the rookie minicamp were that he was already teaching his fellow first-year players where they need to be. The fact that Butler wanted Williams out there with McFadden in the game to help make the defensive calls shows how far the rookie has come in learning the defense.

However, as is always the case at the bottom of the roster, the main distinction between active roster and practice squad is special teams ability. The fact that Williams is already showing his impressive mental acuity for the linebacker position in Dick LeBeau’s defense is a wonderful thing; however, as a ninth linebacker, it is unlikely to come in handy, especially considering Timmons and Foote rarely miss a snap.

About the Author

Matthew Marczi

Passionate Steelers fan with a bit of writing ability. Connoisseur of loud music. Follow me on Twitter @mmarczi.

  • Luke Shabro

    I didn’t take notice of how Williams was in coverage at all? Any notes from that? I know the biggest concern with keeping him on the 53 was whether or not he’s a two down or three down linebacker. Thanks!

  • steeltown

    I agree that this year keeping a 5th ILB could be a real possibility.. what do they always say, You field the Best 53men

    With Worilds having experience at LOLB I would think he is the first to slide over if Woodley goes down with injury bringing up Jarvis Jones at ROLB.. and then Sly and A.Robinson can be the 3rd line outside so possibly C.Carter is expendable, making the case for keeping a 5th ILB this season …. just a thought

  • Douglas Andrews

    Williams seems to be a really sharp ILB the way he not only is making the defensive calls but he’s able to get his fellow teammates lined up in the right position. That says a lot for the rookie. I’m impressed with the position depth in this year’s training camp not only at LB but WR, RB, and CB. Gonna make for some really tough cuts.

  • Marcus

    That’s a good sign!

    Foote has been able to stay on the field a long time for having a high understanding of the defense – even tho he is not overly gifted physically.

  • StarSpangledSteeler

    Great article, Matt.

    We as fans like to see big hits and big plays. LeBeau looks at his defensive players differently. He like to see “no big mental mistakes”. That’s why they continue to start guys like Foote and Gay. They may not be up to the task physically, but they always understand where they’re supposed to be and where the others are supposed to be.

  • Matthew Marczi

    I think he actually showed well for himself (some of his best plays in coverage were negated by Worilds’ penalties though). I will have a breakdown of the ILB race behind Sylvester and McFadden up tomorrow.

  • Matt

    Defintely get rid of Brian Rolle and kion Wilson. I don’t see these guys being much help to the team.

  • sgtrobo

    looking forward to it Matthew. I was a big Vince Williams fan pre-draft and was completely stoked when I saw we grabbed him

  • Matthew Marczi

    Hopefully you will read my article on the inside linebacker battle today, in that case.